Trinidad pelau is a one-pot rice dish made with pigeon peas, chicken (or beef), coconut milk and “burnt” sugar. Read on to learn how to make it!
When I think about the most iconic Trinidadian recipes, the ones that are an important part of our culture, the three recipes that come to mind are calalloo with crab (a soupy vegetable side-dish often served on rice), macaroni pie, and pelau. These are the family recipes that my mom would cook when I was growing up, and that I’m trying to learn how to make on my own.
I’ve got the macaroni pie recipe down pat now (and I make a good sorrel drink too), but I haven’t made calaloo on my own yet… that’s next up on my list. Today I’m sharing our family’s version of Trinidadian pelau with chicken and pigeon peas, which I think might now be the most tested recipe on this website.
This is a seriously good recipe for pelau, in my opinion. I know every Trini family has their own way of making this dish, but (obviously) I’m partial to this one. It’s basically the same recipe that my mom has been making for me all my life, and now I get to share it with you.
What’s in My Trinidad Pelau?
As I mentioned before, every family has their own way of making Trinidadian pelau. Some people like to add ketchup and/or tomatoes to the dish, which gives it some acidity and a reddish colour. I’ve been told that sometimes pumpkin or buttnernut squash is added for sweetness, but I’ve never had it with that.
Another popular addition is Worcestershire sauce and/or soy sauce to add salty “umami” flavour, which I prefer with the beef version of this dish. And of course, pealu can range from mild to super spicy depending on how much Scotch Bonnet pepper you add to it.
Scotch Bonnets are easily my favourite hot pepper, by the way. They are beautiful, fragrant and wicked hot! They are similar to a Habanero pepper, so you can use those as a substitute if you need to.
Another common ingredient is something Caribbean families refer to as “green seasoning”, which is a combination of thyme or Spanish thyme, green onions, shado beni (culantro), garlic, onion and hot peppers (optional). This mixture is used as a marinade for meats and as a seasoning for dishes like this Trinidad pelau.
I’ve left the green seasoning out of this recipe, because not everyone will want to go through the effort to make it and really, the rice is still really good without it. But if you have some in your fridge or freezer, feel free to add it to the recipe.
The last common addition to this dish is Golden Ray margarine. We hardly cook with this at home anymore because it’s hard to find. I’ve seen it described as a “vegetable oil butter” online, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be a hydrogenated margarine (the bad kind of margarine)… but damn is it ever tasty. It’s bright orange in colour and adds a depth of flavour that I can’t quite describe. Like MSG 🙂
What are Pigeon Peas?
If you haven’t eaten pigeon peas before, you’re probably wondering what they are. Honestly, I don’t know why they’re called “pigeon” peas, but they have nothing to do with the bird. They’re actually tiny legumes that are native to Africa, but are widely used in Caribbean, South Asian and Southern United States cuisines.
Depending where you live, you may be able to find pigeon peas fresh, frozen, dried or canned. I usually buy canned ones because they are easy to find in the international aisle at most grocery stores.
We’ve made this Trinidadian pelau with green pigeon peas before, but I prefer the “dry” pigeon peas instead. These still come in a can, but they are pigeon peas that have been dried before canning. I think they have a nuttier flavour, and are a bit chewier too… but I could be imagining that.
How do I Burn Sugar for Trinidad Pelau?
Ok, first of all while people call it “burnt” sugar, you don’t actually want to make your sugar black! It would be acrid and very unpleasant to eat.
What you’re looking for is a deep caramelization of the sugar (see image above), which does have a bit of bitterness to it, but ultimately adds complexity to the overall flavour of the dish.
This is actually a thing, I swear. There’s actually an entire book about the use of bitterness in cooking that is fascinating to read, if you’re into food science. I wrote an article about it for Yahoo Canada News once, which you can check out here.
What Kind of Coconut Milk Should You Use for Trinidad Pelau?
There are 2 different kinds of coconut milk at my local grocery. One comes in a can and one comes in a carton. For this recipe, and most recipes where you cook with coconut milk, you’re going to want the canned version. The one in the carton is meant for drinking, and it’s very watery in comparison.
I know I add water to my coconut milk in this recipe, but trust me it’s not going to turn out the same. The canned version has more fat, which is something you want because it adds a certain creaminess to the rice that you wouldn’t get with just water.
If you can’t find coconut milk, you can used creamed coconut (which is more concentrated), or you can dilute a can of coconut cream with some water and that should work out ok for you.
My last tip for this recipe is to not worry if the rice sticks to the bottom of the pot. It’s pretty much guaranteed to do that, and it’s the best part of the dish (it’s called bun bun). Just be careful not to actually burn it, and you’ll be good to go.
I hope you enjoy making this dish! If you do, please give this recipe a star rating in the recipe card, leave me a comment, or share a photo on social media with #InSearchOfYummyness. I’d love to see what you make!
Happy cooking 🙂
Trinidad Pelau with Chicken and Pigeon Peas
- 2 ½ lbs chicken thighs , bone-in, skin on (could also use chicken legs)
- 3 springs thyme , use less if using dried thyme
- 4 cloves garlic , finely chopped, grated or pressed
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil , or any neutral cooking oil
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 cups long grain rice , washed and drained
- ½ onion , chopped
- ½ cup carrot , chopped
- 19 oz. dry pigeon peas , rinsed and drained (1 can)
- ¼ tsp scotch bonnet pepper , or more if desired
- 1 tbsp cilantro , finely chopped
- ¼ cup green onion , finely chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 7 oz coconut milk
- 3 cups hot water , or chicken stock
- 1 tsp Golden Ray margarine , optional
- Place chicken in a large bowl, along with 1 sprig of thyme (reserve the other 3 for cooking), garlic salt, and black pepper. Stir to coat the chicken with the seasonings, cover and place in the fridge for 30 minutes (or overnight).
- Add oil to a large heavy bottom pot, and place over medium-high heat.
- Once oil is hot (but not smoking) pour the sugar into the pot in an even layer and allow to caramelize. The sugar will melt and bubble as it caramelizes. Do not stir the sugar, but do watch it carefully to look for the change in colour.Wait until the sugar just starts to turn dark brown in colour (not black!), then carefully add chicken to the pot and stir to coat with the "burnt" sugar. Use caution - hot sugar can burn you quite badly!
- Add onion, carrots and pigeon peas to the pot and stir to combine. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add rice, stir, and cook for another 5 minutes. Then add Add cilantro, green onion, reserved sprigs of thyme, scotch bonnet pepper and stir to combine.
- Add coconut milk and hot water to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pot and gently simmer for about 20-25 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed and rice is cooked through.
- Stir in margarine, if using. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Tips & Notes
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